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Do “untranslatable words” really exist?

And the rest of the week’s best writing on books and related subjects.

English-Chinese dictionaries in a Beijing bookshop. Tim Graham/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Welcome to Vox’s weekly book link roundup, a curated selection of the internet’s best writing on books and related subjects. Here’s the best the web has to offer for the week of January 5, 2020.

Scott is also the author of a series of spy novels set in ancient Rome, which were published under the name MC Scott – a deliberate decision by her publisher before the first, Rome: The Emperor’s Spy, was published in 2010. “They made my name gender neutral because somebody had said ‘nobody in Tesco will buy a spy book by a woman’,” says Scott. “I don’t think that would happen now. Publishing has become much more gender-blind. If it’s a good book they’ll publish it, whereas before it was: ‘Only blokes can write this’.”

One of the most important aspects of the Saunders aesthetic is something that might be termed “bonelessness.” A boneless story doesn’t begin with an idea for a central conflict, or with an outline, or with any other structural design. A boneless story has no skeleton. That doesn’t mean that there’s no action. To the contrary, Saunders’s stories are packed with incident. But the stories accumulate beat by beat. As a general rule, Saunders doesn’t conceive of plots in advance, but rather tries to write one funny, interesting moment, and then another funny, interesting moment, and so on. A Saunders story grows like a fungus.

  • Medium’s Zora, a vertical for women of color, has put together the Zora Canon, a list of the 100 best books written by African American women:

To our knowledge, however, no one has ever compiled a comprehensive list specifically featuring the finest literary works produced by African American women authors. We decided to undertake that effort both to honor that still underappreciated group of writers and to provide ZORA readers — you — with a handy reference guide to their work.

Even worse were the little things, the discussions of word count goals, of when to write, for how long, how many drafts. Simple eccentricities were accentuated until they seemed definitive, perhaps even mystical. It’s an issue of the individual pushing against the community. Outside of a writing program, you can just be a ‘writer,’ and that’s it. You can admit that you sit there, putting words in a row. That it feels magical at times can be your little secret. But among writers, every writer has to be a certain kind of writer, and your process better be magical as all hell.

  • Scholars have stumbled across a rare first printing of John Addington Symonds’s “A Problem in Greek Ethics,” a 19th-century essay that anticipated the gay rights movement. Symond, fearing persecution, only printed 10 copies of the essay, and this new copy is the sixth to be found. Katherine J. Wu tells the story at Smithsonian Magazine:

A gay man himself, Symonds led something of a double life. Despite marrying a woman and fathering four daughters, he carried on several same-sex relationships (later detailed in his memoirs) and penned works like “A Problem in Greek Ethics.” His writing, scholars have argued, even influenced Oscar Wilde, who, after exchanging letters with Symonds, went on to argue against the criminality of sodomy “because homosexuality has been a noble pursuit since antiquity,” as Ryan Warwick, a graduate student who worked on the exhibit, tells McCauley.

  • At DCist, Mikaela Lefrak delves into the life of E.D.E.N. Southworth, the now-forgotten woman novelist who was one of the most celebrated authors of the 19th century:

Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Southworth was one of the most successful American writers—male or female—of the mid-19th century, outselling contemporaries like Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne. She was a mainstay of Washington’s early literary scene: She hosted Friday night salons at her Georgetown cottage, attended Lincoln’s second inaugural ball, and is even credited with encouraging Harriet Beecher Stowe to write the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

“It’s kind of remarkable to me that we don’t know more about her,” Zuravleff told me a few days before Christmas, as we visited her grave with writers Whitney Fishburn and Carrie Callaghan. “How does someone just disappear like that? I think it happens all the time for women writers.” But today, Southworth’s books are rarely taught outside of college courses on Southern literature. No D.C. street bears her name, and her Georgetown home was torn down ages ago.

Adults should know better than to believe that other cultures speak in spells. The concept of “untranslatable words” preserves the idea that the world can never be fully mapped out and expunged of mystery. That’s a comforting thought. It keeps alive the possibility of escape—of something surviving far beyond our everyday experiences. It is also an easy replacement for the hard tasks of em­pathy and understanding.

Sisters like the Marches and Bennets partake in a cinematic tradition that has never managed to wane even amid demands for more politically engaged representations of women. It’s a vision of white girlhood that locates hardship in an overtly romantic, aestheticized panorama of femininity, arranging bodies and objects under a fetching curatorial impulse. Though these characters brush against patriarchal pressures or experience the young woman’s economic precarity, their lives are also meant to be envied and coveted. … This placement of precarity and privilege in artful relation to one another is a crucial fantasy; it induces catharsis by weaving patriarchy into a fanciful, luminous vision instead of depicting its effects for what they amount to: mundane reality.

And here’s the week in books at Vox:

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